By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Jul 31, 2012 at 11:02 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

On a quiet lake in Northern Wisconsin, Jordan Zimmermann baited his hook, cast his line and went about enjoying his few days off from work.

It was like any other summer day for the 26-year-old, heading out on the water just outside of Auburndale, a village of just over 700 people an hour south of Wausau. Normal except for the fact Zimmermann only had a couple of days and had to make the most of his time. He would head south to Miami shortly, and the first day back was his turn to put in the heavy labor.

While national eyes were turned toward Kansas City for the Major League Baseball All-Star game and on teammates Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann – a pitcher for the Washington Nationals – went home and tried to catch some fish.

No exotic locale necessary – home is where the heart is.

"He comes back home and went fishing with his buddies," said Pat Bloom, Zimmermann's college coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "To say that he's stayed true to his roots, that's proof right there. He finds satisfaction in simple things like that. It's kind of funny that a kid like that, that is so at peace when he's out on the water wetting the line with nobody around is the same kid who can go out in front of 40,000 and throw seven shutout innings with people screaming at you."

Zimmermann did allow himself another little escape – counting the days between that return start against Miami on Friday, July 13 and this past weekend's series at Miller Park.

"I started doing a little figuring out so everyone back home could plan accordingly," Zimmermann said with a slight smile. "It's definitely nice to be home. I mean, I'm still three hours away so it's not really 'home' but it's in the same state I guess."

He estimated submitting about 50 ticket requests for Saturday's start against the Milwaukee Brewers, his first appearance as a professional baseball player in his home state. He's been in the major leagues since 2009 – less than two years after being drafted in the second round out of Stevens Point – but had not played at Miller Park since a legion league game in high school.

The return was triumphant, as he bested the Brewers with six innings of one-run ball while striking out six. The win improved him to 8-6 on the year, and his earned run average dropped to 2.28.

"He's really good," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I see why he's got a two-point-something ERA. He's got a great fastball. He's got good command with it and a nice breaking ball. The slider is really hard to see. That's a very good pitcher."

As he mowed through the Brewers lineup as easily as the long grass on his still-new property in the heart of God's Country, Zimmermann showed little emotion.

Such is his nature, dating back to his prep days at Auburndale High School, to when he took a line drive off the face during a simulated game prior to his junior season at Stevens Point, or when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery in August 2009.

Whether the performance is good or bad, however, he is never indifferent. Zimmermann's face always belies the competitor within that had him back on the mound in a college game in Florida with two plates and 11 screws in his mouth, down 20 pounds and his jaw still wired shut; had him pitching in Washington a mere year and eight days after his elbow was rebuilt.

"When I first had the surgery I told myself I'm coming back in a year," Zimmermann said. "They said 12 to 18 months but I said I'm going to do everything I can to get back in a year. It was pretty close."

He resolve was born out of Auburndale, where he was a lightly regarded three-sport athlete. Bloom, who came to Stevens-Point during Zimmermann's senior season in high school, had heard about his competitiveness, and felt he would be a good fit in his program.

Once on the Division III campus about a half hour away from home, Zimmermann began to come into his own. Focusing on baseball, and on conditioning, he began to build himself up physically. The summer before his junior season at Stevens Point, he pitched for the Eau Claire Express of the Northwoods League.

It was then that he began to gain some notoriety with major league scouts, as well as Division I college coaches.

"That was still at a time where a kid could transfer from DIII to DI and not have to sit out a year, so I can recall having to deal with all the different coaches that were vying for his services, almost like they thought because he was a Division III pitcher that effectively made him like a junior college pitcher, that he was too good for us and we would have to give him up," Bloom said with a laugh. "But, Jordan stayed true to his roots."

His junior year started off in the worst way imaginable however, when he was caught in the right jaw by a line drive during a simulated indoor game right before the Pointers went to Florida early in the season.

"I broke it in the front and the back," said Zimmermann, reenacting how he felt his jaw line and pooling blood in his hand. "It caught me flush. I didn't lose any teeth. It was bleeding quite a bit and I kind of bit down a little bit and all my teeth were pushed in. I was biting down on the outside and I'm like 'This thing's broke.' I didn't get knocked out or anything. I went down - it kind of stunned me a little bit - and then I saw all the blood."

Two months later he was tossing a one-hitter in the NCAA Division III College World Series. A month after that, he was drafted in the second round (No. 67 overall) by the Nationals. Twenty-two months after that, he was in the major leagues.

Even Bloom admits it would be revisionist history to say he projected so highly.

"If you go to a Division III school no one's on scholarship, so everyone is out there playing as hard as they can and pretty much paying to play," Zimmermann said. "There are no full rides or anything. I never got anything handed to me and had to work hard for everything. I'm happy I went to a Division III – it made me work a lot harder. It's the little things that really matters.

"Some guys just breeze through everything and have it easy and never have any setbacks or anything. I'm thankful to be on a big league team."

That competitive spirit – as much as his mid-90s fastball and ability to make hitters swing and miss – I why within the Nationals organization he is looked at in as high regard as his more famous teammates.

It's also why his deer hunting season might be cut short a bit as the Nationals seemed primed to make their first postseason appearance since the franchise moved to Washington.

Regardless of how the season plays out – even if he pitches the Nationals through to the Fall Classic – Zimmermann will be back home shortly thereafter, bundled up in a tree stand, back to his roots.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.